Student ambassadors at the College of Engineering are making strides to build a more inclusive environment for women with the advent of the school’s Wāhine Connect program, a group that serves as an outlet for relaxation, relationship-building, and professional growth.
Engineering and other STEM professions have long been challenged with attracting women, a problem that starts with engagement at the K-12 level and continues through college and beyond. At the UH Mānoa College of Engineering, where female students make up only 23% of the student population, the imbalance is often not as apparent as the statistics indicate, with women students taking up prominent leadership roles within project teams and clubs and winning accolades for scholastic achievement. Still, it’s a statistic many at the College would like to see changed, an effort that involves not just recruitment but retention of talented women in the program.
In the fall of 2021, the College’s team of Engineering Student Ambassadors launched a program to foster a sense of community for its female students and create a safe space for growth and learning. The program, originally envisioned as a formal mentorship program and entitled the Wāhine Mentorship Program, started out over Zoom, with monthly connectivity events between upper and lower-classmen, such as online game nights, craft nights, and panel discussions. The group gradually gained steam and, after reviewing feedback from participants in the first year, was rebranded in the fall of 2022 as Wāhine Connect. With its new direction, Wāhine Connect has decreased the barrier to entry so that students can jump in and participate in programming at any time, offering female engineering students of all years (along with their friends and male allies) a chance to enjoy social activities, engage in professional development, and build connections with one another via low-pressure, free monthly events.
Wāhine Connect kicked off the 2023 spring semester with a Galentine’s event in February, complete with cookie decorating, a chocolate fondue fountain, and a Valentine’s-card-making activity to create cards for special women in the students’ lives. In March, the student ambassadors organized a Brunch and Learn event with Engineering alumna Lindsey Tagawa, a 2021 BSCE grad and now an engineer at NAVFAC Pacific. To a packed house, Lindsey shared her personal story of transitioning from student to professional and answered questions from an attentive student audience. In April, Wāhine Connect held its last big social event of the year: the second annual Picnic and Painting in the Park. Students took a break from classes and sat in the lawn of Holmes Hall painting their own unique creations on small canvases as they enjoyed poke bowls and cream puffs.
This year, Wāhine Connect has also integrated a service component to the program, with ambassadors and volunteers visiting various schools to speak with girls about opportunities in engineering. At James Castle High School, engineering ambassadors chatted with girls over lunch about careers in STEM and all of the opportunities within the engineering pathway. The College of Engineering also has a year-round presence at Castle via a program called EngineeringHI, in which tutors/mentors (some of whom are also affiliated with Wāhine Connect) come to campus multiple times a week for in-school and after-school assistance STEM subjects.
At Kapolei High School, ambassadors met with students in the Engineering/Design and Building/Construction Career Pathways. Courtney Suma, Kapolei’s Career Academy Advisor, valued the personal connection the women made with her group. “We truly appreciated that their presentation didn’t focus only on the College of Engineering, but included their lives as college students, their past experiences that shaped who they are today, and their future,” said Suma. It was so impactful on her students that one of them even stated in a post-event survey, “This presentation may have changed my perspective and my decision to go to college.”
The team’s final engagement opportunity of the semester was a “Women in STEM” presentation at Damien Memorial School. At this event, co-organized by Damien President Dr. Arnold Laʻanui and Principal Dr. Kyle Atabay, twelve middle and high school-age girls engaged with College of Engineering students and staff, hearing from student ambassadors about their experiences in college and engaging in friendly competition with one another via an engineering design challenge.
Mia Casparian, a junior majoring in Electrical Engineering, serves as an engineering student ambassador and has been active in planning and developing the Wāhine Connect Program since its inception. “Wāhine Connect is really important because with our smaller female student population, it’s important for us to have a way to network, connect and make other female engineering friends, as well as learn from people who have moved on to work in industry and get advice from them on that transition. From an organizer standpoint, I love seeing it come together, and seeing people interact and form real friendships outside of the program.”
Christianne Young, a senior majoring in Computer Engineering, has also been a part of the organizing committee since day one and says it’s the most fulfilling project she’s worked on as an engineering student ambassador. “I love Wāhine Connect because I was able to be with it from the start, seeing it grow from nothing to a popular series of events that encourage student interaction. The events days themselves are my favorite – seeing students arrive, seeing them enjoy what we have planned for them, and watching them make connections.”
To learn more about Wāhine Connect and upcoming events, visit www.eng.hawaii.edu/students/current-students/student-programs/wahine-connect.